Anna Wienke’s goal used to be getting out of the restaurant business. Now she’s starting her own.
Wienke is the founder and executive director of Provision Community Restaurant, Minneapolis’ first nonprofit, give-what-you-can community cafe, which is currently being developed at a commercial kitchen in LynLake. The goal is to create a restaurant where everyone is welcome and money is not discussed.
Wienke spent 15 years in the food industry in all sorts of roles, including stints waiting tables at Morton’s steakhouse before transitioning into the nonprofit realm. Eventually she began cooking and serving food at St. Stephen’s Homeless Services in Whittier. She liked it but wanted to find a way to make the experience better for the diners. One day she decided to pretend like she was waiting tables at Morton’s when she was serving food at the shelter.
“The whole atmosphere of the place changed,” she said.
Now, Wienke is trying to bring that atmosphere to Provision, which is currently being developed at Lake & Harriet, with a goal of opening in late July.
To make her dream of providing high-quality service and food to low- and no-income people a reality, Wienke spent months tabling at the Wedge and Linden Hills co-ops — asking and taking questions from community members as she tried to develop a concept. She thought about having a more traditional soup kitchen with an emphasis on high-quality service, but ultimately decided on a model where everyone is served equally and they pay or give what they can, even if it’s nothing.
One of the biggest questions she gets is: How do I know I’m not taking a seat from somebody who needs a meal?
At community cafes, most people will pay for their meal, according to Tommy Brown, who helped start FARM Cafe in Boone, North Carolina, and is the vice president of the board of One World Everybody Eats, a nonprofit that supports and advises community cafes nationwide. Provision is using the One World Everybody Eats model as a guide in its development.
“The whole idea of the community cafe is it includes the whole community,” Brown said. “It welcomes the whole community, and it does that by taking away the means test.”
For-profit restaurants do means testing in a traditional way — people can only eat at restaurants they can afford. On the other end, soup kitchens often require people to prove they lack resources, Brown said. People serving at soup kitchens typically are people of greater means, and there’s a separation between those serving and eating.
The goal of the community cafe is to remove those divides.
Typically, Brown said, about 60% of the patrons at a community cafe will pay enough to cover the cost of their meals, another 20% step up by paying for more than what they ate and another 20% pay very little, not at all or offer some form of labor payment.
The original Provision business plan projected a 50/50 split between paying and non-paying customers, Wienke said, but they plan to see how things play out in the initial months.
“There are so many unknowns,” she said.
Getting off the ground
One World Everybody Eats recommends those interested in launching a community cafe build an active board, form a nonprofit and raise about $150,000–$300,000. Provision has two of those things, but Wienke said that amount of seed capital would be out of reach. By partnering with people in the community willing to do various work for free, she said they’ll be able to launch with less.
“It will be under $100,000, and that is because of this community,” she said.
The Provisions board is littered with Minneapolis restaurant professionals, including Kenny Beck of Stone Arch, Jared Brewington of Funky Grits, Brent Frederick of Jester Concepts and Steve Wilcox, a sales manager at food services company Aramark.
They’ve had a lot of help from other professionals, too. Dorsey & Whitney helped them get 501(c)3 tax-exempt status and has helped with their leases and other agreements. Contractors and architects have agreed to donate their labor.
Other local businesses and neighbors have also helped. The Sherwin Williams on Lake Street donated paint, and a couple who heard about the cafe donated a large kitchen table.
Some community cafes with lots of help have started with around $50,000, Brown said. “Really it becomes a community effort to get these things going,” he said.
A key part of getting going was finding the location. Morgan Luzier, who co-owns Balance Fitness Studio and works with the LynLake Business Association, owns the building at 2940 Harriet Ave., a commercial kitchen that hosts SK Coffee, Events by Lady K, some catering services and formerly Salty Tart bakery. She had a colleague in Longfellow who was approached by Wienke and thought Luzier might be an accommodating landlord. Initially, she was skeptical, but after learning more about the concept and meeting Wienke and her board, she was impressed. She began to meet with dozens of restaurateurs in town and helped connect them to Provision.
Luzier thinks it could be an exciting attraction in LynLake and a successful one.
“Our city is big enough that if everybody tries it once, it will work,” she said.
Inside the building at 2940 Harriet, the smell of fresh paint lingers. There are walls to be knocked out and a large storage space to be transformed into a dining room. Windows are being added to the building’s north side and the south side is getting a mural depicting community conversations based on responses the group got while tabling at Open Streets Lyndale. They were thinking about adding a patio space, Wienke said, but decided against it because they don’t want anyone to be separate.
‘Serve really good food’
Provision plans to offer set meals seven times per week. Wednesday through Friday they will offer a 5 p.m. and a 7 p.m. dinner, and on Saturday they will serve a 10 a.m. brunch. The cafe will be open Monday and Tuesday afternoons for self-serve coffee and pastries. Wienke is hoping to attract pop-up chef events on Saturday and Sunday nights.
All meals will be first come, first served and will be done family-style. Volunteers and Provision staff will work together to serve and cook the meals.
They plan to have ice breaker-style conversation starters at the tables to help people get to know one another.
“It might be a little bit uncomfortable,” Wienke said, adding that anyone can handle that for an hour.
That discomfort is to be expected, but the goal of community cafes is to break through those barriers.
“What my chef likes to say is, ‘These are great places to practice being human,’” Brown said.
One of the first people who joined Wienke was David Smith, Provisions’ programs director and jack-of-all-trades. He quit his job to work for Provision full time, drawn to the cafe by his Christian faith and his longtime friendship with Wienke.
To get an idea of what he would be doing, Smith volunteered at the closest community cafe, Our Community Kitchen in Stillwater. Dining there was slightly uncomfortable at first, but the feeling dissipated quickly.
“It really is disarming to share a meal with someone,” Smith said.
He’s primarily working on finding partners willing to donate food or other materials. Many vendors are willing to help, but say they need Provision to come pick up the food.
Provision has set up relationships with several local restaurants, bakers and grocers. Their goal is to eventually receive about 90% of their food from donations.
For most community cafes, food recovery from other restaurants, bakeries and grocers represents about 10% to 50% of their total food served. Purchased food typically makes up well over half of what diners find on their plates, Brown said. Provision is hoping their relationships, and their location in a dense urban area, will allow them to do much more food recovery. Expecting to receive lots of starches, fruits and vegetables, they’re leaning toward a vegetable-heavy menu.
“We’re going to have to work with what we have,” Wienke said.
A key concept of the community cafe is it should be a restaurant where people want to eat.
“Our guidance is: Serve really good food,” Brown said.
That’s been the case at several community cafes, like A Place at the Table in Raleigh, North Carolina, which has great reviews on Yelp both for its concept and the quality of its food.
Many of the people who dine at community cafes will be able to find some kind of food elsewhere, Brown said, but that food probably won’t be tasty, nutritious or 100% reliable.
“It’s really about food insecurity and not necessarily hunger,” Brown said.
In Hennepin County, 10.5% of people were considered food insecure in 2017, according to the national nonprofit Feeding America, which measures hunger in the U.S.
“With our mission we are targeting community-based solutions,” Wienke said. “We don’t claim to have the answer to the food insecurity problem.”